This is my prosecution witness statement from today’s Participation on Trial event… The (eventual) verdict was “GUILTY – BUT WHO CARES?” Comments always welcome…
Everyone’s a ‘participant’ nowadays. Aren’t ‘they’? Or, following the Warwick Commission’s report on The Future of Cultural Value and its magic number – 8% - should I say ‘we’ – members of the cultural class? We’re all participating today, aren’t we? But to what ends; for what means?
Participation in the arts lacks real meaning. Wander into a gallery, watch a play, help set up a festival, dig up a beach looking for fool’s gold, clog dance on cross-shaped shipping containers in the name of Christ, write memoirs in a timber sanctuary then watch it burn (physically and/or digitally), oh, and praise be the lanterns! Then there’s socially engaged art, ecologically engaged art, activist art – marginal - issue-based – commonly working for social justice.
All forms of participation in the arts. There are many others. The Warwick Commission report mentions participation 73 times. Why? Everyday Participation – can virtually anything be a form of cultural participation? Hmm…
So why do I find the ‘participation in the arts’ agendas – and participatory arts in particular – so troubling, so divisive? I put it to you that participation lacks intent. For many policy makers, commissioners, arts organisations, artists, and so on, the more fun the activity, the less socially or politically engaged, the better.
PARTICIPATION BY NUMBERS. Count ‘them’. Lots of ‘disadvantaged’ people – great! Segregate them. Categorise. NEETS, ethnic minorities, older people, physically impaired, mentally ill, on and on and on. Measure them. See – they have improved! Thank The State for sending us an artist (backed by hidden ranks of arts administrators, of course). Look - all ‘their’ woes are gone. Take happy pictures for websites and Facebook and glossy publications. Pair them with a narrative penned for a pretty penny by the consultant or academic-led elite. Add graphs, tables, carefully edited anecdotes from ‘real people’ who loved taking part. Pie charts. Sprinkle spurious references to a too-oft-cited weakly defined canon. Make a film. Cost benefit analysis. Bravo! Keeps the funders happy. Useful evidence for future projects. Splendid.
Or is it? The trouble is participation in the arts - participatory arts - are products of insidious instrumentalism. State and funder-led initiatives hoping to wash away ‘their’ troubles, ‘their’ sins with a bit of taking part in some art. Sanitised, professionalised, risk-assessed to within an inch of existence. Best practice. Toolkits. Reports. Evaluations. Metrics. Big data. Fodder for never ending quasi-academic discussions about participation at which most participants are… well… us. CHANGE THE CONVERSATION! HOW? WHY HASN’T IT CHANGED? Circular. On and on.
STATUS QUO. Hidden behind shallow dialogic frameworks. Nothing but a democratic veneer. Allowing dominant power structures to be reproduced and maintained. Dialogic exercises and even ‘radical listening’ embed as cornerstones in participatory arts’ mission of improving practice and quality – ‘professionalising’ artists. Anyone for CPD? Join with us. Sing ‘The Dialogic Song’. MISSIONARY ZEAL. Preach to the converted. Spread ‘our’ message. PARTICIPATE NOW! (Not ‘us’, them. New people.) CONVERT TO ARTS PARTICIPATION NOW! (It’s something to do. Might get you a job. Might improve your wellbeing. Might improve the economy. Might even be FUNPALACES fun!)
What. No artists in the room? Good. IMPOSE BEST PRACTICE NOW. Funders love it. Dovetail into burgeoning business plans. FILE UNDER OUTREACH OR EDUCATION. Organisations employ artists nowadays, don’t they? They allow ‘participation’ into their programming - sometimes. Voiceless artists should be grateful for meagre scraps as payment for their labour. Hurrah! Complicit in the division of their labour, the institutions cheer as they further alienate artists from art! GET CREATIVE!
New Labour shuffled in neoliberal governance. Public money bought new Cultural Industries citadels replete with artist and audience and participant proof defences. Yet the price for artistic excellence is high; the pact always Faustian.
PARTICIPATION FOR ALL. Deeply divisive. Soft neoliberal governance. MERCENARIES. Artists are always bottom of the pile. Squashed silent by the tentacles of instrumentalism. With few rights and little money, who can blame artists for taking the bait? Initiatives like Creative People and Places, Enriching GB (or should that be England?) are part of this.
MOBILISE. Artists and communities can mobilise for social justice. Self-organise. Art can counter the instrumentalism of state and institutions. A different, freer form of participation. Socially engaged art. Activism. Academics and agents of the state tend to steer clear. No wonder. Our practice opposes neoliberalism in all its guises. We want change. WE ARE NOT GUILTY!
So, I suggest that participation in the arts and the trivialising forms of participatory arts practice that feed like parasites from fillets of newly institutionalised participatory programming are guilty of a terrible crime: PARTICIPATING IN THE NEOLIBERAL PROJECT OF INDIVIDUALISM. THEIR ILLUSORY RAINBOW CLOAK OF ARTS AND CULTURAL INDUSTRIES SHOULD NOT FOOL YOU. LOOK CAREFULLY. IT IS A CRUDE APPROPRIATION OF THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES. A DEMOCRATIC SWINDLE.